Chinese Researchers Admit to Modifying Embryos

By Alexa DellCioppia,
Money & Investing Writer

In an article published in the Protein & Cell journal this past Saturday, Chinese scientists at Sun Yat-Sen University admitted to genetically altering human embryos.

The cause for the initial modification was to remove the gene from certain embryos that contains Beta Thalassemia, which causes a serious blood condition.

While the cause here seems rather reasonable, others maintain that the altering of human embryos may be unethical and will do more harm than good.

Scientists are also skeptical of the new technique.

The embryos operated on in this initial phase were intended for in vitro fertilization.

The fact that the operation was done in this manner mitigated some of the risks, yet the main researcher on the project noted that “If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100 percent …That’s why we stopped. We still think (the technology) is too immature.”

Scientists themselves have even admitted that the methods applied in this particular project and the technology utilized were not adequate for an operation done on non-in vitro embryos.

This being said, while an interesting operation, the success did not mimic the results of similar operations done on animal cells or the cells of grown human beings.

Specifically, the study began with 86 pre-implementation embryos.

Once the first round of the operation had been completed, and the embryos were given time to take to the changes, there were only 71 surviving.

Of these, 54 continued on to the next (and final) phase, and only 28 were considered a success.

Here in the U.S. many are speaking out about the dangers of performing this kind of operation.

Over at Harvard Medical School, a stem-cell biologist, George Daley warns that “their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”

This goes to show that despite steady advances in all kinds of technology, operations such as this one should not be conducted on normal embryos any time soon.

Too add to the dangers, genetic alterations, such as this one, are not reversible and are inherited from one generation to the next.

Should scientists implement the operation on normal human embryos, we could very likely see an increase in genetic modifications that are not necessarily positive.

This could cause far worse than it could good.

This kind of operation also forces people to question the ethics behind the procedure.

The journals Nature and Science refused to publish the research paper citing ethical concerns.

Many in the field have argued that there needs to be an open discussion before procedures like this carry on.

While they all seem to agree that the effects of successful modifications would be incredible, there should also be some kind of wall between the research-lab and human life.

The lead scientist on the project, Junjiu Huang, has said that he will be conducting research on animal and matured human cells before continuing his research on embryos.

Studies of this nature leave others wondering if such modifications would be used for non-health related reasons, spurring an increase in so-called “designer babies.”

Many fear that this kind of modification, in which (theoretically) parents could alter their child’s appearance and other non-physical attributes, could be disastrous.

Certainly, the technology to conduct such operations will not be ready any time in the near future.

However, it will be interesting to see if such operations become a reality during our lifetimes.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 28th print edition.

Contact Alexa at

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